Thursday, December 11, 2014

Principles of Sowing and Reaping for the Suzuki Parent: There Are No Shortcuts in Musical Training

No Shortcuts

When it comes to developing musical skill, there are no shortcuts. There are longer roads than others.
For example, if a student learns a technique incorrectly, she then has to spend valuable time and energy to re-learn it later.

Working with a competent teacher can help determine the straightest path and avoid time-wasting detours. Yet conversely, the insatiable search for the perfect teacher often has the opposite effect. Rather than fast-tracking a student, constantly switching teachers produces a lack of continuity that can hinder a student’s progression.

Still, there are no real shortcuts.

In our world of instantaneous information and fast food, the reality of the time, effort, and patience required of a parent and student on a musical journey astounds us. Why does it take so much work? As much as we may try to fight the reality, musical competence requires thoughtful and deep practice. Cultivating a precise and complicated skill demands focused practice over a significant length of time. Journalist Daniel Coyle beautifully articulates this necessary process of acquiring skill in his book The Talent Code.

If you have studied a musical instrument or your child has, you know this uncomfortable reality first hand.

Could Music Lessons Be More Like Soccer?

Enrolling a child in Suzuki music lessons differs from participating in a beginning sports league. A kindergartener can do well in soccer with a practice and game a week. A child can even take a number of months off after the fall and still do well in a spring league. Daily practice is not required for a five year old soccer participant to have an average game.

But a music student will not do well with one lesson and one practice a week. Take a number of months off of lessons and practicing, and significant rebuilding is necessary. Small amounts of smart, daily practice and listening are required to facilitate average musical competence.

Whereas beginning soccer is measured in weekly work, beginning music requires daily work. Sometimes the dailiness music requires is almost painful.

The Daily Grind

I encounter this reality in two spheres of my life. First, as a cellist, I am faced with this daily practice reality as I continue to develop my skill and prepare for performances. I have days where I wish that it was magically easier to learn new music. I wish that I could play well without the constant grooming required.

Second, as a Suzuki teacher, I see more and more parents of students frustrated by this reality. They expect that less time should be required, and simultaneously expect faster results. Parents want to see the process paying off, and they want it more quickly.

Sometimes, a parent’s expectation disregards the daily, normal process of skill development.

More Like Sowing and Reaping

I propose that enrolling your child in a Suzuki program is much more like the long-term process of a farmer who sows seeds and then avidly and faithfully works to care for those plants. He waters, fertilizes, weeds, prunes, and tends the young plants. Then after many months, or in our case, after many years, the farmer looks for a golden, ripe harvest.

The principles of sowing and reaping can change your perspective as a parent and bring more joy into the musical journey. The following blog posts will explore how these principles could positively affect your Suzuki experience.

Guest post written by Kathleen Bowman.  Kathleen is a performer and Suzuki cello teacher based in Saratoga Springs, NY.  You can find out more about her on her website.  

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Competitive Teaching

Every teacher likes to think that he or she is "the best."  Sure, there's always more to learn.  But a certain amount of ego becomes involved the more you teach.  After a few years and a few dozen students under your belt, it's only natural to feel that your process of trial and error has left you better than when you started.  And, arguably, it has.

The unwitting result of all this is a vein of competitiveness.  You become the clan leader of your little tribe of students and no one dare invade!  Every alternative idea is not only a threat but a potential blow to that ego.

The thing is, teaching should not be competitive at all.  Where did you get your first teaching ideas if not from other teachers?  The only way to keep the classroom engaging is by trying new approaches, seeing if it works and then making the approach your own.  This is the true trial and error process.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Slow 'n Steady

I consider myself to be a writer.  Like learning an instrument, writing takes time and experience in order to master.  The stringing of words together in a way that makes for a gripping tale takes practice.  Lots of practice.

The process of learning how to write is interesting to me.  I've tinkered around with stories since I was a teen--in the same way one might tinker around on the piano without any training--but I don't consider my formal training to have started until my adult years.

Again, like music, the life lessons taught by writing are gradual.  You don't just suddenly wake up one day with a Harry Potter or Moby Dick on your hands.  Each day you work at your story until one day you notice that the plot just seems to flow better now than it did a year or two years ago.

But the most significant thing that I've learned is the power of "slow 'n steady."  When I aggressively started my writing career the actual act of sitting down to write was entirely dependent on my "muse."  I had this idea in my head that a "good" writing session meant the words were pouring out and I got more than 1,000 of them down on the page.

What this led to was frustration.

I would sit down at the computer, write only a paragraph or two and then become overwhelmed by how much I had left to write before it was a "good" writing session.  As a result, days or weeks could slip by without much progress.

It took me a ridiculously long time to realize that all these lofty aspirations were my greatest enemies.

It finally occurred to me that it all came down to the math.  As it stood on the muse track I got 2,000 words down on a page in a good month.  2,000 words and tons of extra time spent putzing around on the Internet while I waited for motivation.

Now, I'm not an abnormally slow writer.  The thing that was holding me back was my unrealistic expectation of what should be done in a day.  But writing a story is not about the single day.  It's about every day.

2,000 words x 12 months = 24,000 words a year (the length of a novella)

If I lowered my goal and wrote an easily attainable 200 words every weekday:

200 words x 261 (number of weekdays in a year) = 52,200 (the length of a novel)

By dropping my unrealistic expectations and switching to small, easily attainable daily goals I more than doubled my writing output over the course of the year.

And I realized that the same holds true in music.  Waiting for the perfect practicing day where you are fed and happy and focused is a waste of time.  It's the small, daily accomplishments that are going to get the job done in the long term.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Intermediate Player

The concept of being "intermediate" is something often overlooked.  Everyone is guilty of this regardless of age.  Though most would not admit as much, there seems to be this unspoken expectation that a student goes from "beginner" and then immediately jumps to "expert."

What happened to intermediate?

Understanding the basics of an instrument and achieving a reasonable amount of control is really only just the beginning of the learning process.  Just because the student can't play everything doesn't mean that the student is a failure or even that the effort was wasted.  Being intermediate at something is the only way to eventually become advanced.

The learning curve is not a straight upward line.  It may resemble such in the beginning when everything is a new concept.  But eventually this line plateaus.  Learning happens in phases and there is a definite possibility that things could get worse at times before things get better.

Being intermediate is far more difficult than being advanced.  At the advanced level most music seems achievable given enough time and effort.  At the intermediate level the mental knowledge has outstripped physical ability and the result is frustration.  The effort of achieving mastery seems daunting, making everything achieved so far appear trivial.

But take comfort in the fact that these feelings are normal.  It is part of the learning process and there's no way to skip this step.  Every advanced musician that you hear playing was both a beginner and intermediate player at some point.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Way of Life

One of the most interesting facets to learning an instrument is how young many of us begin our musical studies.  It it commonly accepted practice to start a child at four years old and expect that he keep at it until adulthood.  Perhaps I should even add that this is the expectation for formal musical studies.

At least this is the expectation.

The reality is that when many parents sign their children up for music lessons it is just another activity.  The parent may agree with how music benefits a child and there is excitement over starting something new... but it is still just another "thing" on the schedule.

Learning an instrument is not a simple or quick process.  It takes years to learn proficiency and even longer to achieve mastery.  To attempt this type of pursuit over such an extended period of time means that music must eventually transform from an activity to a way of life.

The student becomes a musician.

Now this doesn't mean the student has become a professional musician or will even study the subject in college.  It means that music has become part of the student's life.  By starting at such a young age there will be a point where the student can't remember a time he didn't play an instrument.  That's a very powerful concept.  That means that the instrument has become a fixture in the growing up process.

It is at this point that the student begins to take ownership of his instrument.  Practicing will still be difficult (it almost always is).  But the nature of the practicing will have changed.  Practicing is just something the student does.  It's a part of life.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

When to Practice by Yourself Part 2

In part one I discussed how the child changes around the age of eight.  In a nutshell: the child goes from highly motivated to please her parents to wanting to become independent.  This shift in the source of motivation can cause quite a bit of at-home tension.

So the first thing to do is acknowledge who wants want.  That adult/parent wants the child to play.  The child wants to play by herself.  A middle ground must be reached.

Since the child is motivated by independence, the adult should acknowledge this need.  Approach this slowly.  Find easy tasks that the child doesn't seem to need much help with.  For example, sight reading assignments.  If there's no new complicated rhythm in the sight reading, it's not unreasonable to have the child work on figuring out the sight reading on her own.  The goal of the assignment (to read notes) is very cut and dry.

The same goes for figuring out a new piece.  Provided the child has all the appropriate tools (sheet music and a recording) then there is no reason why she can't start this process on her own if that's the assignment from the teacher.

The adult's arena is to ensure quality.  This is less cut and dry and will also be met with resistance.  But it's also the adult's responsibility to establish the boundaries.  Establish what areas the child can do independently and what areas must be done together.  And then stick to those boundaries.

Anything that requires detailed perfecting should be a joint effort.  This is not simply about the number of repetitions.  This is about the number of quality repetitions.  So, for example, if there is a tricky passage in a piece of music.  The child may have an understanding of the passage but the adult is there to see that the passage is executed the same way every time.

A really good strategy for working with children of this age is to have a reliable neutral party.  This means having a recording device or a mirror readily available.  The neutral party removes the conflicting points of view.  Both the adult and the child knows the assignment.  The neutral party is there to prove if the assignment is being done correctly.

Monitoring quality does not mean that the adult has to be an overbearing tyrant during the practice.  Sometimes just being in the same room is enough to remind the child that quality is going to be important.  The job of the adult is to assert the lesson that practicing is not a simple task and is about more than establishing independence.